New Orleans President Obama here’s some advice before you come to New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina: no matter what happens please, please ignore every bit of advice you might possibly get from the author and The New Yorker writer, Malcolm Gladwell about what to say about New Orleans and Katrina, and probably any other advice he ever gives you any the future. Recently, Gladwell was cited as one of the wise and rich men and women that Obama was consulting about his future post-Pennsylvania Avenue.
Gladwell has been on a bit of a roll the last number of years as the highly popular author of a number of books that might be characterized as “applied pop psychology” books including The Tipping Point, The Outliers, and others. Don’t tell me you haven’t read anything he’s written or I’ll ask you to give me the address of your cave. I’ve certainly read several. He specializes in pseudo-science stories that act like brain candy. You can’t read them quickly enough and they all seem smooth and sweet until you make the mistake of actually thinking about them and then you’re not sure. Whatever? It’s candy, so what might be the harm, right? Well, having just finished reading his most recent piece, “Starting Over” in The New Yorker labeled “Dept. of Social Studies,” which goes past candy, approaches unmitigated drivel, and then swerves into just plain dangerous, I’m convinced we need to get a petition together to the Secret Service to keep Gladwell as far away from the President as possible. Who knew Canadians could be so diabolical!
The thin reed Gladwell tries to grasp starts by trying to look at Katrina as a social experiment that might measure the impact of mobility on survivor families torn away from their homes by the devastation of Katrina, who were dropped or came to shore in other communities, and how they fared. Ok, that might be interesting, but then he tries to expropriate a seminal study done by economists indicting the United States at large for decades of abandoning urban America and perpetuating inequality by pretending the only thing under that shell was the issue of mobility, rather than disinvestment, racism, a deteriorated and mean-spirited social safety net, deindustrialization, and tax policies that have stagnated most of us while creating the super-rich. I could go on.
And, Gladwell knows he’s treading on dangerous ground throughout the piece. He tries to act like Katrina was bad news and that he would not have been riding with the business interests and social elites who were avowedly trying to whitewash the city, but unfortunately he wears his neo-conservative, neo-liberal biases on his sleeves. Implicitly, he totally supports every effort to prevent families from being able to return home from closing the schools to denying rebuilding funds to providing no healthcare. He pretty much sees the economy and population of New Orleans as a horror. He rationalizes this with a pseudo-science argument that the odds of lower income families “moving on up” are better in Houston, which he insults by calling it the “Salt Lake City” of the south, because the odds are slightly better that someone might crawl out of poverty, so darned are they lucky they were in a hurricane, surrounded by water and dead bodies, separated from family, friends, community and culture so they have a little teeny bit better chance in an economically stratified country to make it out. Spoiler alert: Please remember that there was no real way to read the study as arguing anything other than the odds were almost impossibly low for upward mobility anywhere!
How do you unravel this preposterous pretzel of an argument? We need public policies for cities and their population which create equity, not that forcibly relocate people on buses, planes, and trains. And, those policies need to be applied to every city. If Gladwell, wants to pretend to look at the impact of mobility and social science, it is interesting that nowhere in the article is there mention of Canadaville, a post-Katrina project of his fellow Canadian, the huge auto parts gazillionaire Frank Stronach from Magma International and his 300-family relocation project of lower income families to Simmesport, Louisiana several parishes up the river. Perhaps he avoided that because it is universally seen as a disaster and was abandoned by Magma and Stronach.
Gladwell finally ends his piece saying with this monument to sophistry:
In the past ten years, much has been said, rightly, about the resilience and spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost. It is time to appreciate as well the courage of those who, faced with the same disaster, decided to make a fresh start.
Courage is triggered by choice, not a combination of disaster and coercion that for many families continues to this day. The overwhelming number of families still not able to return home are African-American. Where there was choice – and resources – in higher income white families, as has been well documented and even Gladwell seems to acknowledge, people overwhelming came home. On one count after another for lower income families Katrina was a pure and simple devastation that continues to this day. Gladwell would undoubtedly line up in favor of putting the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, supporting pogroms forcing Jews to flee, and any number of outrages in the name of a few percentage points of progress in the by and by, rather than hunkering down and doing what’s right to support widespread progress for all the people where they live, including in urban areas like New Orleans.
Mr. President, don’t listen to Malcolm Gladwell. He may sell books, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a sycophantic apologist for the rich and, sadly, turns out to be a fool.